Year in Review 2020: Most Memorable Drama Characters

“He learnt his lesson well.” Illustration of a scene from The Bad Kids by 电子鲫鱼

I can count on one hand how many dramas I watched from beginning to end, so I’ve decided to do things differently this year and shine the spotlight on the characters that I really liked. Feel free to submit your own reviews and posts here.

Standalone reviews 2020: A Murderous Affair in Horizon Tower, We Are All Alone, The Romance of Tiger and Rose

Which dramas did you follow this year, and which characters made a lasting impression on you?

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Review: Liu Yifei is the only good part of the live-action Mulan

How is it that Chen Man’s photoshoot for Liu Yifei got a calligrapher to write out Mulan’s slogan – Loyal, Brave, and True – but Disney couldn’t seem to get one for the movie with their 200-million-USD-budget.

The original Disney’ Mulan wasn’t perfect, but you could tell that the people who worked on it poured their hearts into it through details. Yet films often reflect societal attitudes, and gone is the time when China was still a subject of wonder for many filmmakers in the West, when filmmakers were sometimes insensitive but at least interested in China. In the live-action Mulan, almost every aspect of the film seems to send the same message: China is the world’s second-biggest box office and we will use the minimum efforts it takes to give them what we think they want.

Disney’s Mulan is not a bad film, but it is a disappointing film. The basic story of Mulan is compelling, the scenery is beautiful if often obviously New Zealand, and its lead Liu Yifei is charming enough and did what she could with the role. Yet it’s very hard to watch the live-action Mulan and not judge it for what it could’ve been or see the lack of effort behind it. One expects a live-action to have the same humor and heart as the original, and it doesn’t. There isn’t a single change I can name that improved the story.

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Drama Review: A Murderous Affair in Horizon Tower

“Now when you’re falling down, I’ll take you high. Come back around, just you and I.” – Theme song by Aila Gato & Philip Halloun

Helmed by three masterful directors, A Murderous Affair in Horizon Tower is one of only a handful of dramas in recent years that is truly female-centric and brave enough to tackle sensitive subject matter such as gender discrimination, domestic violence, rape, PUA and victim blaming.

The story begins with the death of coffee barista Zhong Meibao (Angelababy) in her apartment, and the brilliant opening sequence below introduces pretty much all the suspects.

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Drama Review: The Romance of Tiger and Rose

The Romance of Tiger and Rose 传闻中的陈芊芊 is an absolutely hilarious rom-com starring the cute and bubbly Zhao Lusi (Love of Thousand Years) as screenwriter Chen Xiaoqian who gets stuck in her own script. Up-and-coming actor Ding Yuxi (Intense Love) plays Han Shuo, the hero of her story.

Hilarious moment #1: Han Shuo is no match for Pei Heng’s calculating subordinate.
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Review: Intense Love

Zhang Yuxi is really perfect for slightly-spoiled-but-kind-at-heart princess roles.

Zhang Yuxi has been a bias of mine since My Dear Princess, and Intense Love 韫色过浓 is definitely her best project since then. While it falls into the age-old trap of losing its spark after the leads confirm their relationship, it’s cute while it lasts. Based on the book of the same name, the 35-episode series stars Zhang Yuxi as an actress trying to get out of her arranged marriage with an equally unwilling doctor played by Ding Yuxi. The marriage was set-up by their grandparents since they were young. However, for some reason their families never had them meet each other until the engagement party at the beginning of the series.

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Review: Serenade of Peaceful Joy

Serenade of Peaceful Joy is an uneven mix of brilliance, dullness, and utter confusion that leaves me both hating and loving it at the same time.

Have you ever wondered why there are so many TV series about Emperors who excelled in war and conquest but so few about those in times of peace? It’s easy to feel the burst of adrenaline in conquest and the suffering caused by war, but how do you get the audience to feel peace or economic prosperity? There’s no moment to declare “victory” in peace nor “winning” in the economy (unless you have a five-year plan).

This is perhaps why the ruler of one of the most economically and culturally prosperous reigns in Chinese history- – the Emperor Renzong of Song – has never been depicted as a main character before. Director Zhang Kaizhou and scriptwriter Zhu Zhu tackle this difficult subject with varying success in Serenade of Peaceful Joy (formerly Held in the Closed Castle).

The series has two main focuses – there’s the palace drama with plenty of creative liberties, and then the court drama that feels like a dramatized documentary. The family of the narrator for the original story, the eunuch Huaiji, connects the two to the outside world to occasionally show how small choices in the palace can have huge ripple effects in the real world.

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Mini-Review: The first five minutes of Serenade of Peaceful Joy is all substance but no serenade

Beautifully designed, written, and acted, Serenade of Peaceful Joy is unfortunately held back by poor directing that leaves way too much work for the audience.

I have so many thoughts about Serenade of Peaceful Joy aka Held in the Lonely Castle that I feel like I need multiple posts to cover even the first few episodes, so here is the first one focusing on the very first five minutes of the drama.

What a well-written opening scene that begs for better directing and editing. Even in this short opening, scriptwriter Zhu Zhu shows her ambitions to create dramatic effects while trying to showcase the uniqueness of the rule of reason that marked Emperor Renzong’s rule in what’s essentially a bioepic of the emperor. Unfortunately, Zhu Zhu’s epic is constrained by Zhang Kaizhou’s directing (or lack thereof). I have no idea what is going in his mind in some of the creative decisions.

The drama opens with the frazzled wet nurse of the Emperor Renzong hurrying through the Palace. Immediately we get that something is up. The scene cuts to the emperor finishing up a calligraphy piece of the “Classic of Filial Piety“, and then asking her to come in. We see that the wet nurse is scared by this meeting, and the Emperor Renzong turns abruptly. What’s this meeting about and why is she so scared while he so calm? The tension builds and both the nurse and the audience expects anger or blame, but all we hear is a soft-spoken question: “What do you think of my calligraphy?”

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Drama Review: Joy of Life Eps 1 – 10


I have so much to say about the new Chinese drama Joy of Life 庆余年. As a fan of the original fiction as well as the author Maoni, I am satisfied with its skillful adaptation of the novel and the tight plot. The casting seems fantastic because this drama features a lot of big names such as Chen Daoming, Li Xiaoran, and Wu Gang.  I would rate a 9 out of 10 based on the first ten episodes. 

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Drama Review: Royal Nirvana

The show clearly wants my tears, and it’s got them.

I’ve got so much to say about Royal Nirvana I just couldn’t wait until the halfway mark, so here I am with a first impressions post (Episodes 1-11).

Royal Nirvana is a poignant drama that is anchored by a group of wonderful actors and an equally good screenwriter in Liangman Xueyuan, who is also the original author. The tragic relationship between the emperor (Huang Zhizhong) and his estranged son the crown prince Xiao Dingquan (Luo Jin) forms the core of the story, and sets the tone for the entire drama.

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Review: Butterfly Lovers is the perfect ensemble coming-of-age drama

“Whether one be male or female, rich or poor, royal or commoner, they should all be able to fly freely.” – The Butterfly Lovers

With a diverse set of characters that grow with each other as they try to find their way in a hierarchical feudal world that is rapidly in decline, the Peter Ho and Dong Jie version of The Butterfly Lovers 梁山伯与祝英台  is one of my to-go feel-good dramas (I stop at some point for obvious reasons). It’s refreshing to see a series where every person is full of wide-eyed wonder at the world they’re learning about and will soon be facing. Foils at every major decision point for the lead couple shows the complexity of the decisions they are forced to make and truly show why Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai are soulmates. 
Alternatively, if you like the possessive male lead who is mean to everyone but the female lead and has a troubled childhood that you can pity him for, then supporting male lead Ma Wencai (Chen Guanlin) has you covered. I’m 100% convinced the canon couple are soulmates in this drama, but I can see why this version’s Ma Wencai has a huge following.

This dance that Dong Jie choreographed on the day of shooting is one of my favorite TV dances. It’s simple but it’s so beautifully shot.

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